There is only one silver lining in the war of words after the 13th round of India-China corps commander level talks on the Chinese incursions at the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh: The talks have not broken down altogether. Neither side has said there will be no more talks, and the Indian statement included the line that the “two sides have agreed to maintain communications and also to maintain stability on the ground”. The disagreement came over the Indian demand that China must vacate PP15 at Hot Springs in the Gogra sector. In July this year, the two sides had agreed on and carried out a disengagement close by at PP17, also known as Gogra Post. Like PP17, the one at Hot Springs does not offer itself to either side as a launchpad for a military strike. From a military standpoint, it is illogical that the People’s Liberation Army disengaged from one but is not ready to hear about the other, unless the idea is to signal an intention to let the situation at the LAC in Ladakh fester. It is intriguing that the Chinese statement after this round came from the PLA’s Western Command headquarters in Chengdu rather than from Beijing, as has been customary until now. The acrimonious end was definitely not in keeping with the recent agreement at Dushanbe between Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar and his counterpart Wang Yi that the two sides should resolve the remaining issues at the earliest. The Ministry of External Affairs said it put forward “constructive suggestions”, but the Chinese side did not agree, and did not come up with any “forward-looking proposals” either. The PLA accused India of making “unreasonable and unrealistic demands”.
India now faces another winter of harsh forward deployment in eastern Ladakh. And going by the hardening positions on both sides, it may not be just for one more year. Army chief MM Naravane has acknowledged that the rapid pace of infrastructure construction on the Chinese side of the LAC to the so-called friction points worries him and that it means the PLA are “here to stay”, and that this means India will stay there as well. It is even more worrying that India now has what he described as a “kind of LoC situation” along the LAC. The LAC is certainly quieter than the western front. But going by recent developments, at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh where there was a minor stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops, and in Barahoti in Uttarakhand, where the PLA reportedly tried to make some incursions, nothing can be taken for granted.
The trust deficit between the two countries has increased even though trade between the two sides is clocking astonishing numbers. The limits of the Boycott China campaign stand exposed. The challenge for India is to keep pushing China for results at the LAC and a broader resolution of the boundary question via talks, and equip the military better to stand guard at the LAC.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 13, 2021 under the title ‘Unquiet front’.